It was a good day in Los Angeles. Actually, it had been a great day. I woke up early, got a 2-hour gym session in, and then headed to Silver Lake for a noontime brunch with my girlfriend and a group of friends. Celebrating a friend’s birthday, we toasted mimosas, ate good food, and had deep discussions about our jobs, the education system’s needs, and personal goals. We had such a good time, we decided to keep the fun going, and headed to our friends house to continue the conversations amidst music and dancing.
My girlfriend and I finally left around 7pm to grab Sushi for dinner. The food was amazing and we talked about how much we enjoyed our friends and what a great day it had been.
With one final outing to attend in Santa Monica around 10pm, we headed west to finish our evening with another group of friends. We arrived to the area early and nearly out of gas. So, I pulled into the Chevron on Santa Monica Blvd, filled up, and proceeded to exit. And this is where my amazing day filled with pure joy became a moment and feeling I will never forget.
One car was ahead of me to pull out. This white woman in a white SUV made a right turn and proceeded to cross three lanes to get into the left turn lane. I moved up, looked both ways, and then proceeded to do the same. As I made the turn, I noticed a police car coming in the opposite direction. I jokingly said to my girlfriend, “Nope. Don’t wanna deal with them today!” I said this thinking of the multiple times I had been pulled over in my life, many times with her in the car. As the police car passed the white vehicle ahead of me, I saw the officer look at the driver. As he proceeded to pass my car, he did the same. And when I looked in my driver-side mirror, I saw him slowing down and turning his wheels in the middle of the street.
I exclaimed to my girlfriend, “Hell naw! He better not!”
“He better not pull me over!”
But, of course.
The police officer waited for a passing vehicle before flipping his car around and getting directly behind me.
I looked over at my girlfriend and stated, “He’s gonna pull me over.”
“But you didn’t do anything wrong!” She said.
“I know. But he clearly already made a decision he’s going to pull me over. My tags are expired so that’s going to give him the reason he needs.”
To be clear, my car is fully registered, but my replacement tags haven’t come in the mail yet. They are December tags and this was the 9th of January.
I turned left. The officer turned left. My girlfriend and I thought about turning right to get off that street. But I knew he would just follow us and pull us over anyway. I had accepted it at this point. After being followed for about three blocks, we came to a stop at a red light.
I looked over and told my girlfriend, “He’s going to put his flashing lights on right after this light turns green.”
I immediately pulled over, turned my car off, took the key out the ignition, rolled my window down, made sure my hands visible, and waited. He quickly approached and stated, “The reason I pulled you over today is for your registration. But the computer shows it’s all good so if I can just see your driver’s license, we’ll be good to go.” I complied, didn’t ask questions, and waited patiently for him to return with my license. He did, told me I was free to go, and pulled off.
That was it. That’s all that happened.
I laughed. I shook my head and laughed. But that was a cover for pain. And for the first time after an altercation with police officers, I decided to let the pain have its moment. The laugh turned into tears. And I just sat there, hands over my face, crying. My girlfriend could do nothing but silently sit and rub me on the back.
There were SO MANY REASONS that I was crying. Anger. Frustration. Helplessness. Fear.
Why the hell did I get pulled over? I had broken absolutely NO LAWS when the officer saw me. I wasn’t speeding, driving recklessly, or playing any loud music. There was absolutely NO WAY this officer saw my tags when he decided to make the most obvious U-turn I have ever seen in a blatant attempt to get behind my vehicle, AFTER looking in my car and seeing me. I have had cop cars follow me, speed up to look into my window, or slow down to get behind me. But I have never received a more obvious case of “Let’s check this guy out” in my life.
Angry because, why the hell did I feel the need to do all of those things when being pulled over? Some people just pull over and roll their window down. I had somehow created a six-point things-to-do checklist of “Please don’t see me as a threat” that had become second nature.
I’m so sick of this! I’m so damn tired of being pulled over. I’ve watched Boyz in the Hood multiple times. I, like many others, always laugh at the scene when Trey gets angry after getting pulled over and starts swinging his fists at the air while talking to himself. Not because it’s an unrealistic scene, but because it all looks a bit funny.
But, I finally understand that scene so much more, and I don’t think I will ever laugh at that part again. The frustration of years and years of being pulled over or harassed for things that other people do freely on a daily basis. When freedom of movement seems to be restricted to the fairer skin and you feel trapped by your Blackness. The frustration of remembering how a traffic stop, when I was 19, progressed to laying on the pavement with guns pointed at me and officers screaming, “I WILL shoot you!”, landing me in jail with a felony charge. Or getting harassed while sitting in my car outside of my job, being rudely directed to stand out in the cold for 20 minutes, shivering, while four officers searched my car and ran my information due to their own (unfounded) suspicions of criminal activity. Or the other common instances like getting pulled over for going 7 mph over the speed limit. Or getting pulled over for a broken tail light, that wasn’t even broken. Or for not coming to a complete stop on a right turn in the middle of the night, with no traffic coming. Or having too many Black people in my car at once. I know, that one doesn’t sound like a law was broken there. But, it seems to be a law anytime my car is filled with Black people. On the way to the beach, gym, or otherwise. Having everybody in the car have their information ran during a simple traffic infraction (or a made up one) while having the car surrounded, asking everybody if they are on probation, if they have any tattoos, and if they have a “street name” that they go by. I could go on, but this list would take up far too much time.
What can I do in those moments? I’ve tried to exercise my rights in the past and ended up in jail. I’ve tried to stand up for myself and ended up standing in the freezing cold for 20 minutes. I’ve been a law-abiding citizen who was breaking no laws, and was still pulled over. And, in last night’s case, I wanted so much to immediately say, “That’s bullshit, officer! You made a U-turn and got directly behind me before you could even see my tags!” But, all I could see was the Sandra Bland arrest video play in my head. Yes, the one where the officer made a U-turn after Bland passed his eyesight, sped up to Bland’s car, and then pulled her over when she tried to get out of his way for “not signaling when switching lanes”. 3 days later, she was dead.
Helplessness because I am a Black man with two degrees, a career in education, a non-profit youth program, and am a law-abiding citizen. And it didn’t matter. None of it mattered. So when they tell Black people to pull their pants up and “respect themselves” in order to be treated fairly, I roll my eyes. When they tell Black people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and overcome obstacles to be successful, like how I slept in my car for 4 months in route to obtaining my Master’s degree, I shake my head. Because it didn’t matter. Because my skin is viewed as a badge worn by the guilty (until proven innocent, or killed) in the biased eyes of the law.
Helplessness because, what if I was killed last night? And my girlfriend went on the news to tell the world how I had done nothing wrong and was racially profiled? I fear how quickly they would find a way to discredit her, to look up my high school transcripts to find bad grades or suspensions, to search my home for marijuana, test my blood, and make me out to be a “bad guy”. The same way they treated Michael Brown. Or Sandra Bland. Or Trayvon Martin. And the media would say, “Well, he should have had tags on his car. It was his own fault he is dead. If you don’t want to get stopped by the cops, STOP BREAKING THE LAW!” Completely ignoring my girlfriends multiple cries of racial profiling.
This was where most of my tears came from. Pure fear. Not for my own safety, though that is a fear I deal with during every interaction with police officers. I feared for my kids. All my kids. Not my actual sons or daughters because I do not have children, yet. I feared for my other kids. My nieces and nephew. My future kids. My students. The kids in my community. The kids across the country. All the little Black boys and girls who are perceived as a threat, and must prove their good intentions, very unlike the lives that White people live (often unknowingly).
I thought about the Black boy in my class who earned a perfect score on his final exam. How HE could be the next Tamir Rice. John Crawford. Trayvon Martin. Oscar Grant. Ezell Ford. Akai Gurley. Rumain Brisbon. Freddie Gray. And how all my other Black male students, or my nephew, or future son, could be the same.
How any of my Black female students, or my nieces, or future daughter, could be the next Sandra Bland. Rekia Boyd. Tanisha Anderson. Yvette Smith. Aiyana Stanley-Jones.
My tears fell because of the plethora of painful challenges that come with being Black in America. The social, emotional, physical, and economic stressors. The all-around systematic oppression that Black bodies face can only be compartmentalized and suppressed and shrugged off for so long.
Sometimes, when I feel all of that anger, frustration, helplessness, and fear, tears are all I have left to give.